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There is an entire industry of artists and builders who dream up cars of the future and bring them to life in film

A Lotus Esprit-based car designed for the film Ghost in the Shell.

After years of working to create an entire sci-fi city full of skyscrapers, holograms, cyborgs and cars for the new Ghost in the Shell movie, designers Ash Thorp and Maciej Kuciara got to see their sci-fi world made real.

They flew to New Zealand, where Scarlett Johansson and the crew were filming a big action sequence. She, a crime-fighting cyborg in a skintight suit, fights a tank.

There, Thorp and Kuciara got to sit in the hero car they designed for Johansson's sidekick, Batou. A car that started out as a Photoshopped mash-up of illustrations, sketches and pictures was now real enough to sit it and to drive. The model was rough, made of fibreglass mesh, Bondo and duct tape. The interior was stripped out and finished in a shocking shade of turquoise leather.

"These cars, they thrash them and they're basically ruined by the end of production," Thorp said on the phone from his home in California. "It's sad because these were Lotus Esprits, which are pretty awesome."

Yes, the main car in this ScarJo sci-fi thriller set 400-ish years in the future was a Lotus Esprit designed in the 1970s by Giorgetto Giugiaro.

An interior concept for a vehicle in Ghost in the Shell.

Whether it's the flying police cars of Blade Runner, the time-travelling DeLorean in Back to the Future, the yellow taxis of The Fifth Element, or the Ford Falcon in Mad Max, cars play a big role in so many sci-fi films. As a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape, cars can instantly set a scene, whether it's 400 years in the future or 50 years in the past.

There's an entire industry of artists and builders who dream up the cars of the future for Hollywood and bring them to life.

Thorp is one of them. He is a "car freak," his colleague Kuciara says. Thorp has owned something like 30 cars, mostly Japanese, including his current project, a supercharged 1993 Honda NSX. "Everything has been upgraded so it not only goes fast, but handles; it's a beast," he says with serious enthusiasm. His car looks immaculate, right down to the red Honda Type-R badge and matching AP Racing brake calipers. Early in his career, Thorp pushed himself to be a better designer so he could afford new car parts. Now, he uses his illustration and 3-D modelling skill to envision the next upgrades for his NSX.

Ash Thorp’s current project, a 1993 Honda NSX.

Thorp pleaded with the director to let him do one of the cars for the film. "I tried to convince him to use an NSX, but it was too soft-angled for him. He wanted something blocky and blunt."

During preproduction, Kuciara and Thorp and their fellow concept artists took the script and turned it into images that defined the look and feel of the fictional world – a "visual map" Kuciara called it. That meant cranking out several iterations and options for every vehicle in the movie, not to mention characters and buildings and billboards. They designed futuristic garbage trucks and sci-fi street sweepers and armoured personnel-carriers and stretched limos. They worked on creating a motorcycle for Johansson's character, only to have Honda come in later and replace it with a product placement.

Once the director was happy with all their vehicle concepts, those designs had to be made, either as physical props or digitally. Most of the cars for Ghost in the Shell were real.

For the hero car, they settled on the Lotus Esprit as a base because it fit the eighties retro-future cyber-punk look of the production and – more importantly – it fit the budget. They considered the BMW M1, another 1970s sports car designed by Giugiaro, as well as the Lamborghini Countach, a lovely wedge-shaped piece of Italian exotica. But ultimately both were too expensive.

"How can we afford a half million-dollar car when we have to make three of them?" Kuciara said. For the Lotus, the director needed one car for interior shots, one for exteriors and a stunt car.

"The cool thing is you can break a lot of rules," Thorp said. "You can buy crashed, totalled, or salvage titled cars because they're just going to destroy them anyway."

The prop cars, built by WETA Workshop in New Zealand, were rough around the edges. On the silver screen though, the sci-fi Lotus looked sleek and invincible, powersliding through the streets of this future Japanese city.

The car looked cool, but more than that, it looked so good you wished Lotus would make it. Certainly, this fictional car is more exciting than any car the real Lotus has made in the past 10 years. It was a better vision of a future Lotus than anything from the company.

The interior of a limousine designed for Ghost in the Shell.

There's a weird feedback loop that happens between science fiction and reality. By imagining the future, sci-fi movies help to create it.

Take Minority Report for example; a 2002 movie in which Tom Cruise controls a computer by gesturing in front of the screen, moving things around by pointing and dragging. "That spawned a lot of technology in video games," Thorp said. Nintendo's 2006 motion controllers for the Wii console, which had people swinging a virtual tennis racket in their living rooms, are an obvious example.

It also spawned new technology in cars. In the latest BMW 5 and 7 Series, you simply point at the main screen with your index and middle fingers to mute the stereo. You too get to be Tom Cruise. Sort of.

The police cars from Blade Runner (1982) had an interactive central screen and a navigation system, long before such technology was available in cars. Today, nearly every new vehicle comes with a big infotainment screen and sat-nav is available on even the cheapest of new cars. Although, no, our cars can't fly, yet.

The autonomous taxi from Total Recall (1990) – driven by a somewhat less-than-artificially-intelligent robot – no longer seems like science fiction. Uber is working hard to replace its human drivers with computers and currently has self-driving Volvo prototypes roving around Arizona and California.

Reality often ends up being exactly as strange as fiction. Hollywood illustrators and artists take ideas from real cars, while real-car designers and engineers use sci-fi movies for inspiration. Some of the more ambitious ideas have yet to come to life, but it's a safe bet there are engineers hard at work on flying cars today because of The Jetsons.

"[Sci-fi] is showing you a reality without having to actually make it real, it's almost like cheating," Thorp said. "It looks so real and makes us think, 'this is possible.'"

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